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Friday, February 10, 2006

Disclosure of Government Contracts

A Parliamentary Committee is currently investigating all aspects of the Government's handling of the Cross City Tunnel project. One of the issues in this controversial matter has been information about the contract and what powers were given to the contractors to limit public access to some streets, to the advantage of the Tunnel owners. The Government late last year was forced to table in the Parliament all papers associated with the contract but the whole process was a bit like pulling teeth.

The NSW Ombudsman has been critical for some years of the use of confidentiality provisios by government agencies to refuse access to contract documents sought under the FOI Act.

The independent member for Bligh (and Sydney Lord Mayor) Clover Moore, has been a critic of excessive government secrecy. In 2003 she unsuccessfully introduced into the NSW Parliament a Bill requiring public disclosure of government contracts.

Just prior to the end of the 2005 Parliamentary sittings she re-introduced a new version of the Bill - (Open Government - Disclosure of Contracts) - and with Parliament due to resume at the end of February it will be interesting to see the Government's response.

The Bill would give legal force to Guidelines issues by the Premier some years ago requiring information about contracts exceeding $150,000 to be posted on the web within 90 days. The Bill also includes a new but tightly defined commercial in confidence exemption to apply only to details of a contractors finance arrangements, cost structure or profit margins, intellectual property or information which if disclosed would place the contractor at a substantial commercial disadvantage.

Moore's Second Reading speech on 15 December includes a summary of the Bill.

The NSW Auditor General in a report to Parliament late last year (see Compliance Review of Agency Disclosure of Information on Government Contracts with the Private Sector) drew attention to the inadequacy of the Premier's Guidelines. The Auditor General reviewed the policy and practices of 20 agencies to verify compliance with the Premier's Memorandum. Only 4 fully complied. Seven were not disclosing information about the awarding of contracts, while another 5 partially complied. The 4 state owned corporations reviewed had all chosen not adopt the Memorandum Guidelines.

In the light of the public controversy about the Tunnel the Government might find it difficult to vote against Moore's Bill, although the Premier's Department comment on the Auditor General's Report doesn't give rise to optimism:
"In an endeavour to enhance the overall probity and transparency of NSW Government procurement processes, Premier's Department would be happy to reiterate its policy to all government agencies and to encourage SOCs to adopt these disclosure guidelines."

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